Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 108 (December 2000): 27-34.
Confessions of a Philosopher: A Personal Journey Through Western Philosophy from Plato to Popper. By Bryan Magee. Modern Library. 512 pp. $13.95 paper.
Philosophers, it would seem, are born, not made. At least that is the impression one gets from reading some of their childhood reminiscences. Stephen Toulmin, for example, a British philosopher now working in the United States, recounts the time as a child when he was on vacation with his family in a cottage just north of London. Because the sun sets so late in the summer in the British Isles, he noticed one evening, already in bed and about to fall asleep, that the red curtains blocking the light of the setting sun gave off a slightly different hue when he closed his left eye than they did when he closed his right eye. “I simply did not know what to make of that,” he recalls with a still lingering boyish, italicizing wonder. “If those two natural allies—my two eyes—gave such different testimony, I just did not know what to believe. What color did the curtains have, really and truly? Forty years later I am still not wholly clear about the answer to that question, or even whether the question has any straightforward answer at all.”
The nineteenth–century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once remarked that no philosopher ever sets pen to paper without being goaded into it by some nagging problem he can neither soothe over nor forget. Toulmin’s anecdote leads one to suspect that Schopenhauer should perhaps have added that such nagging most often begins at the very dawn of rational consciousness. If so, then no philosopher has given a more convincing account for how a child’s wonder must motivate the adult philosopher than Bryan Magee has done in his recently published intellectual autobiography, Confessions of a Philosopher. And like Toulmin’s moment of bafflement, Magee’s began as a child in bed about to fall asleep:
Until I was five I shared a bed with my sister, three and a half years older than me. After our parents had switched out the light we would chatter away in the darkness until we fell asleep. But I could never afterwards remember falling asleep. It was always the same: one moment I was talking to my sister in the dark, and the next I was waking up in a sunlit room having been asleep all night. Yet every night there must have come a time when I stopped talking and settled down to sleep. It was incomprehensible to me that I did not experience that, and never remembered it. . . . That going to sleep was something I did every night yet never experienced was for years a source of active bafflement.
Magee’s entire life, it seems, has been punctuated with one philosophical impasse or crisis after another. He seems almost to have inherited the philosophical obsession in his genes. On one particularly harrowing occasion he found himself in his prep school chapel and felt overcome by an attack of solipsism (not in the technical sense of actively denying the existence of others but in the more generic sense of not knowing how to connect the existence of others with his quite separate awareness of their existence). Perhaps every child or adolescent has had a similar experience, but what makes Magee’s realization so remarkable is the physiological effect it had on him:
With a sudden horrible churning over of my stomach I realized that the natural way of putting this into words was to say: “When I close my eyes they disappear.” Even now, after all these years, what I cannot put into words is how indescribably appalling I found that moment of insight, how nightmarish. I was inundated by crashing great tidal waves of nausea, claustrophobia, and isolation, as if I were forever cut off from everything that existed—apart from myself—and as if I were trapped for life inside my own head. I thought I was going to throw up or faint. I was overwhelmed by panic and a need to escape from the situation—just get out. Groping and blundering, I lurched along the row of boys in my pew, and under the eyes of the whole school . . . I veered distraught and [ran] out of the building. What everyone commented on afterwards was the color of my face, which was apparently green—so no one doubted that I had felt ill, and therefore no one questioned me about why I had walked out.
Readers of Immanuel Kant’s famous Critique of Pure Reason know that it concludes with a treatment of various “antinomies,” assertions that, when taken to their logical conclusion, ineluctably lead to the positing of the opposite statement, the most famous being the antinomies of space and time. How can either space or time be finite, since their presumed boundaries can then be extended to just a few inches or seconds more? But if they are truly infinite, how can anything be located, specifically and definitely, anywhere inside the space–time continuum if that continuum itself has no definition?
Everyone knows that Kant’s Critique makes for tough reading, and ever since its publication great minds have broken their skulls on this section of the book. But how many people have knocked their brains out in childhood pondering these antinomies? Magee found himself tormented by these questions several years before the attack of solipsism in the school chapel. And in true Kantian fashion, he realized that this must say something about reason’s relation to the world: “The more things I thought about, the more problems I acquired. But I never seemed to acquire any solutions. And yet, it seemed to me, solutions there had to be. Something or other must be the case with regard to each one of these questions, if only I could find out what it was.”
It will surely not surprise the reader to learn that, like Stephen Toulmin, Bryan Magee became a philosopher—but one of a special stripe. His innate drive, almost obsession, to gnaw at philosophy’s apparently meatless bone might seem to some a dubious endowment, but Magee’s intensely visceral commitment to the quest that true philosophy represents has given him a unique insight into the woes that currently beset professional philosophy.
When he turned forty, for example, he was asked to become a tutor in philosophy at Oxford’s Balliol College, and was stunned to learn that Oxford’s examination in the history of philosophy covered only Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Working as a tutor also required him to read large amounts of secondary literature solely because his pupils were required by the examiners to show familiarity with, as he tartly says, “a lot of unimportant books about important books.” This experience left him with an extremely dim view of what happens to a student who must search for wisdom through such a tedious medium:
Academic life, at least in the humanities, is bedeviled by an obsession with secondary literature, most of it highly ephemeral. This secondary literature is provincial not only in time but in place. Students at Oxford are constantly having their attention drawn to work by local academics which would scarcely be on the periphery of people’s consciousness in, say, a major American university, where the reverse situation is likely to apply. This has the effect of cheating the student. Instead of soaking themselves in the imperishable masterpieces of their subject and developing their powers of independent thought . . . in relation to those, they spend half their time studying writings that will be considered scarcely worth reading by anyone thirty years later and are not studied even now in most other universities. A knowledge of such dispensable and ever–changing secondary literature is often seen as the hallmark of professionalism by people whose only distinctive intellectual possession it is.
No passage I have read recently has better captured the central pathos of higher education today, at least in the English–speaking world. Most analyses of the mediocrity of college and university instruction tend to congeal into jeremiads against the politicized instruction of “tenured radicals.” But a sober, nonideological analysis will reveal that the pathos Magee laments here can be found across the board, irrespective of the politics of the instructor or the mission of the school: far too many colleges spoon–feed their hapless undergraduates the thin gruel of textbook summaries.
Obsession with secondary literature also exposes professors and their recruiting deans to a trendiness that will nearly always miss quality work when it goes against the grain. As Magee says, “Doing what others do is one of the most striking characteristics of academic life in general.”
Even worse, when a false reading of a classic text worms its way into the secondary literature the interpretation takes on a life of its own, and from then on even the most well–read philosophers will insist that such–and–such a work “must” mean what the received wisdom says it means. Magee recounts two times in his life when he finally got around to reading a famous work on his own and realized that what he had been taught about the work in question was completely wrong. At Oxford he had always been told, for example, that Karl Popper’s “falsifiability thesis” was merely a variation on the Verification Principle of logical positivism; but when he finally read Popper’s Logic of Scientific Discovery, he realized it represented the refutation of logical positivism.
An even more bizarre example of this blinkered refusal to read a primary text on its own terms can be seen in the “reception history,” so to speak, of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous early work, usually known by its shorthand title, the Tractatus. As an undergraduate at Oxford, Magee was told that the book was the founding constitutional text of logical positivism, when in fact it too refutes logical positivism root and branch. But the story gets “curiouser and curiouser” when the reader discovers that Wittgenstein makes his purpose clear right in the preface to the book and peppers the entire work with sentences like these: “It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words. Ethics is transcendental.” . . . “The whole modern conception of the world is founded on the illusion that the so–called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.” . . . “We feel that when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.” Nor does he hide the essentially mystical implications of his thought: “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.”
Magee happened to read the Tractatus shortly after his graduation from Oxford, and the experience stunned him into a kind of retrospective disbelief: “I could not see how all those people who had been talking and writing about the Tractatus could possibly have read it.” But even more disconcerting was the reaction he got after he cited chapter and verse from the book itself to his erstwhile teachers: “It seemed self–evident to them that I must have got it all wrong. How could I be right and their friends wrong? The very idea was absurd. That I should keep buttonholing people about it was grotesque and—well, embarrassing.”
These vivid lines must not be allowed to give the impression that Magee’s book is one long rant against all professional philosophers working in an academic setting, although with Oxford philosophers he can be quite harsh, as when he says that “they seemed to me like non–music–lovers who had sneaked into the concert without paying.” Magee had begun a doctorate at Oxford, but when he was offered a year’s postgraduate fellowship at Yale in 1956 he grabbed at the chance—and finally found an academic setting where real philosophy was taking place, especially in Brand Blanshard’s seminar on Kant: “The interpretation put on everything by Oxford philosophers had been analogous to the interpretations put on current affairs by active members of the Communist Party: partisan, belligerent, propagandist, intolerant, nakedly self–oriented, and one–sided. Blanshard stood in contrast to all this. Although he was himself in opposition to the tradition he was discussing, he presented it with admirable fairness in its relationship to other traditions.”
And I am sure the reader can imagine Magee’s culture shock at seeing those exotic animals called practicing scientists attending the seminar on the philosophy of science. “[This] seminar brought home to me just how self–contradictory the situation at Oxford had been at the time when most philosophers had taught that scientific utterance was the paradigm of meaningful talk about the world, and that the only future left for philosophy was to become the handmaid of science, when those same philosophers were not only innocent of any taint of scientific knowledge but were not even sufficiently interested in it to acquire some.” Yale was such a bracing time for him because the professors went to reality for adjudication, while Oxford’s professors only consulted each other: “Their whole life–situation was what existentialists mean by ‘inauthentic.’ If they had really understood, and believed, and felt the truth of what they themselves taught [about science], they would have lived differently. Their philosophizing was in bad faith.”
So Magee was forced to wend his way through the world feeling as vulnerable and isolated as Socrates must have in Periclean Athens. (No wonder the mere thought of solipsism could turn his face green.) And crucial to his isolation was his intuition, inherited from early childhood, that common sense must be illusory. If he had accepted common sense as a child, his bewilderment would never have arisen in the first place; and as his bafflement as a child led to isolation then, so too the same philosophical puzzlement has led to his isolation from his friends and colleagues, but especially the rationalists.
Rationalists claim at every turn that they oppose dogmatism in all its forms and regard themselves as crusaders against obscurantism and lazy thinking. But for Magee this pose has no basis in reality whatever. When questioned more deeply, his rationalist friends proved to be as dogmatic as anyone else:
If one drew their attention to the fact that there seemed to be no way in which our reasoning power could make sense of this or that basic feature of the world or of our experience, this was seen by them as a reason for not raising the question. What they wanted to do was confine their lives to the domain within which they could make sense of things. So at an only slightly deeper and more critical level they really turned out to share most of the attitudes of [religious believers].
No wonder, then, that the hero of Confessions of a Philosopher is Immanuel Kant, for “Kant makes the point early on that if reason leads us into self–contradictions and impasses, reality cannot correspond to it, and therefore it cannot be possible even in principle for us to understand reality by the use of reason alone.”
Magee is particularly insightful on Kant’s moral philosophy. For the very existence of moral categories is itself another antinomy, a proof that the empirical world of cause–effect cannot correspond to the whole of reality. Just try, Magee suggests, expunging moral categories from our ordinary discourse. Not even atheists—not even the Marquis de Sade—managed that. What Kant has done, and brilliantly, is to force the determinist either to abandon all moral categories or else to forsake his determinism. But the former option can never work, as Magee explains, because to do so would make one a psychopath, someone “with no sense whatsoever of right and wrong.”
But once let the determinist insert that dangerous word “ought” into the proceedings, then out goes his determinism, for he would then be attributing to his interlocutor the ability to act otherwise: “Even the wicked do not regard themselves as mere things, mere physical objects like a chair or a table, without rights or moral claims of any sort. Everyone wants to be treated with moral decency, even those who do not show it in their behavior to others; and for this to be even possible it is necessary for others to have choice, at least sometimes.”
Most philosophers have noticed this dilemma, but those who accept a commonsense view of the world are forced to explain free will in terms of the natural world (for example, John Dewey defined freedom as a function of our relation to nature). But this for Magee is the equivalent of trying to catch the decisions of free will “in the act,” so to speak, by finding the determinants for a decision in various biological drives and rational motivations, which are then taken to be the tokens of determinism: since an act occurs under a motivation it thus cannot be free. But to look for free will in the empirical world in this way is for Magee like his own efforts as a child to catch himself in the act of falling asleep. It cannot be done: “These acts [of decision–making] on our part seem perpetually to spring into existence out of nothing. However carefully we try to penetrate their provenance with the most sharply concentrated attention we find ourselves encountering nothing at all—no explanation, no causal connection with anything else, a void.”
Kant’s achievement was to produce a rational account for why such things cannot be given a rational account. This paradox is no mere epistemological point without any implication for the nature of the world we live in. Quite the contrary: Kant’s philosophy claims that science is in principle incapable of grasping reality in its totality, which means that reality must be different from what it seems, and in a most radical way: “Although we know that there is a part of total reality which is not contained within the empirical world, the very fact that it is not so contained means that we are permanently unable to have direct knowledge of its contents.”
Unfortunately, at this point, at least in my opinion, the author goes astray. In his rehearsal of Kant’s views Magee comes close to the standard insights of such famous “negative theologians” as the sixth–century Syrian monk known to history as Dionysius the Areopagite, as when he says that Kant “rules out, permanently, any direct knowledge or understanding of a transcendental God, or any knowledge that we have souls—still less that they survive death. [He] provides an exceedingly powerful demonstration that there cannot be any such thing as specifically religious or theological knowledge.” Well, perhaps, but Magee goes overboard when he claims that Kant has thereby refuted the claims of the Roman Catholic Church that the existence of God can be proved; he rather airily asserts, without establishing his case, that “Kant has demolished the traditional ‘proofs’ for the existence of God.”
Where Magee goes astray, in my opinion, is at the place where all post–Kantians have gone astray: in their reaction to the great glaring inconsistency in Kant’s thought. Notoriously, Kant had followed Hume in holding that the concept (or technically, the “category”) of causality belongs only to the empirical world. But he also insisted that beyond the phenomenal world lies, for reasons adduced above, a “noumenal” world unreachable by direct experience but which alone can account for moral categories and our sense of the sublime. But to assert that this posited noumenal world accounts for our experience is thereby, as nearly everyone has noticed, to assert some kind of cause–effect relationship proceeding from noumena to phenomena, as even Kant’s contemporaries and supporters pointed out.
Generally speaking, there are three ways to react to this glaring contradiction. One can, with Hegel and his followers, dispense with the concept of the noumena altogether and declare by fiat that the only world is the phenomenal world and that philosophy can therefore only be a pure phenomenology. Or one can subscribe, as Magee does, to Schopenhauer’s view that since free decision is the great indicator of the noumenal world, the unseen but real world is essentially will—a view that by a rapid declension leads to Nietzsche’s famous “will to power” with its attendant ideologization of every feature of contemporary life, where every issue boils down to Karl Marx’s question, “Who’s got the power?”
But another option remains, and one that Magee does not even so much as consider: the Thomist option. With remarkable perspicacity Pope Leo XIII saw that the Thomist schema of causality could be the linchpin for a new apologetics that might win back the world of intellectuals to the Roman Church. By and large the program, launched with his 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris, did not live up to its promise, partly due to the fact that Rome had earlier placed Kant’s first Critique on the Index of Forbidden Books, a self–defeating regulation that practically guaranteed philosophical mediocrity among those who obeyed it.
But another reason for the muted response of the secular world to Thomism must also stem from the manner in which Leo XIII’s tocsin–call was heard. For, especially in the twentieth century, several Jesuit authors such as Pierre Rousselot, Joseph Maréchal, and Karl Rahner heard Leo’s trumpet as sounding a call to seek a reconciliation with the Kantian system by incorporating his transcendental view of the noumenal self into the Thomist system.
In my opinion, this movement has proved a failure, although it is not possible to establish the case within the confines of an essay. But one fact, easily established and universally recognized, at least tells us of the fact of the failure, if not the reasons why. By their own account, “transcendental Thomists” (to use the official descriptive term for this school) claimed that with their newly minted philosophy they would be able to convey the credibility of the Christian message to the world: only by soldering the Thomist to the Kantian system would the gospel be heard by modern man, they insisted. Unfortunately for this project, almost no one outside the coterie of transcendental Thomists pays even the remotest attention to their work, which must surely reflect badly on the viability of the project to begin with. Rousselot still maintains a shadowy existence—like Achilles in Homer’s Underworld—in the Jesuit university in Rome, and every once in a while a monograph will appear on Maréchal from some obscure European press. And of course the thought of Karl Rahner still lives on (albeit pretty much in full retreat) in such redoubts as the Catholic Theological Society of America (or at least among its superannuated members: in my experience most younger theologians have no interest in Rahner). But like the thought of Bernard Lonergan, whose work bears certain similarities to this school, none of these men is studied, or even heard, in secular academia.
How much different was the situation in the case of those full–throated, two–fisted Thomists like the French laymen Jacques Maritain and Étienne Gilson, men who saw the fundamental incompatibility of Thomism and Kantianism. More crucially, they also realized that Kant’s contradictions could be resolved only by accepting Thomas’ schema of the Creator’s causality and creation’s effectiveness. Again, this essay is not the venue for establishing the legitimacy of their approach, but I hope it serves my point at least to remind the reader that these two foreigners were virtually lionized by the secular academy in North America after World War II. (Their appointments were, tellingly, at such places as Harvard, Princeton, and the Universities of Toronto and Chicago.) They exerted so much influence among secular intellectuals that it led to the witticism that at the University of Chicago, Protestant students (or Marxist students, in another version) were taught Roman Catholic philosophy by Jewish professors.
It goes without saying that almost none of that achievement remains today. One of the unanticipated effects of Vatican II was to set off a kind of neutron bomb in the mind of the Church, leaving buildings intact but gutting out the Church’s long accumulated and still viable synthesis of faith and reason so laboriously hammered out over the centuries. Now most traces of the intellectual resources available to the Catholic apologist have simply vanished from the curriculum of seminaries and Catholic institutions of higher learning without anyone seeming to have noticed what happened.
One of the more remarkable features of Confessions of a Philosopher is how rarely its author mentions medieval philosophy. One cannot help but place at least part of the blame for Magee’s lack of engagement with medieval philosophy on the negligence of so many contemporary Catholic philosophers and theo logians, who seem not to realize the resources they have at their disposal. “How are they to hear unless someone preaches?” St. Paul famously asked. And the same question might be addressed to Catholic thinkers about agnostics like Magee, although in their current blinkered state, one wonders how rhetorical the question would be. Of them we might also add Paul’s concluding rhetorical question: “And how can they preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10: 14–15) Or, to vary the point (see Luke 14: 31–34), if they were sent, how would they be outfitted for battle?
In any event, whether from the inadequacies of contemporary Thomism or from a typical Anglo–Saxon blindness to medieval philosophy, Bryan Magee never engages the Thomist tradition and thus ends up, faute de mieux, following Schopenhauer’s line of argument. Nor was the Schopenhauerian route Magee took all that unfortunate, for he makes clear how many are the virtues of that cantankerous German. Perhaps because he was saddled with an unpleasantly misogynist and deeply belligerent personality (he regularly slept with a pistol under his pillow), Schopenhauer has not been read very much—Magee in fact came to the man quite late in his career. But, as the author shows in marvelous detail, this native of Danzig has a great deal to teach contemporary philosophy, not least how to write.
One of the most engaging features of Schopenhauer’s philosophy emerges from his insistence that a good style is crucial to the integrity of any philosophy. For him deliberate, consistent obscurity is prima facie evidence for inauthentic thought. He even scores Kant for this sin, much as he admires—indeed depends on—Kant for his own achievement. And true to form, this famous rival to Hegel (Schopenhauer so despised Hegel that he deliberately scheduled his own lectures to conflict with Hegel’s, with the predictable effect that no one attended his lectures but instead went to hear the much more famous Hegel) expresses his contempt for bad writing in magnificent prose:
Kant’s style bears throughout the stamp of a preeminent mind, genuine strong individuality, and quite exceptional powers of thought . . . [but his] language is often indistinct, indefinite, inadequate, and sometimes obscure. . . . The most injurious result of Kant’s occasionally obscure language is that it acted as exemplar vitiis imitabile [a bad example for the decadent to follow]; indeed, it was misconstrued as a pernicious authorization. The public was compelled to see that what is obscure is not always without significance; consequently, what was without significance took refuge behind obscure language. Fichte was the first to seize this new privilege and use it vigorously; Schelling at least equalled him; and a host of hungry scribblers, without talent or honesty, soon outbade them both. But the height of audacity in serving up pure nonsense, in stringing together senseless and extravagant mazes of words, such as had previously only been heard in madhouses, was finally reached in Hegel, and became the instrument of the most barefaced general mystification that has ever taken place, with a result which will appear fabulous to posterity and remain henceforth as a monument to German stupidity.
Magee completely agrees with Schopenhauer here and praises him for realizing that “bad thinking drives out good and, because it perpetrates harm, must not be ignored but has to be fought to the death.” For the same reason Magee will condemn recent trends in Continental philosophy, and his indictment of it sounds remarkably like Schopenhauer’s philippic against “German stupidity.” For him when a philosophical school’s style is consistently murky, this automatically indicates a weakness in its outlook or methodology.
Magee’s attraction to Schopenhauer goes beyond “mere” questions of style. Iris Murdoch once remarked of Gilbert Ryle that his writings describe a world in which no one would ever fall in love or join the Communist Party. Not so with Schopenhauer’s world. In fact Magee mentions in passing that Schopenhauer is one of the few Western philosophers to discuss the philosophical implications of sex, a remark that reminds one how rarely the subject is treated in philosophy, given that erotic electricity is nearly as pervasive to us as sensory perception, a subject endlessly harped upon by philosophers, nearly to the point of death. But except for Plato, St. Augustine (if the reader counts him as a philosopher), Schopenhauer himself, Paul Ricoeur, Roger Scruton, and (back when he was plying his trade as a philosopher) Karol Wojtyla, one must range quite far beyond the established canon to find sober philosophical discussions of sex, a vacuum that allows poseurs like Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich to hold forth unopposed with their unverifiable, indeed preposterous, theories.
Perhaps the most crucial debt Magee owes to Schopenhauer can be gleaned in this short sentence: “At the heart of the mystery, it seems to me, must lie the relationship between the self and the empirical world in which it is not an object. In fact I am tempted to believe that the ultimate mystery is the relationship between the self and the empirical world.” This is pure Schopenhauer, and hits the mark so directly that one is still left wondering why it did not lead both men to a more direct appropriation of Christian faith. Leaving aside the case of Schopenhauer (who gravitated to the Upanishads), I was left in constant amazement at how often Magee would, often unawares, sidle up to religious truth, realize where he was going, and then back away immediately.
For example, basing himself firmly on his Kantian and Schopenhauerian views, he will gingerly admit the possibility of the soul’s immortality in these telling words: “[There is] a possibility that total reality includes a self or selves that are not in space or time, not within the realm of possible observation or experience, and therefore not possible objects of empirical knowledge. If this logical possibility is realized it brings with it an explanation of free will, and one that would meet the doubts we are considering.” Given everything he has said up until now (this sentence comes in the last chapter), he could hardly aver anything else. But notice how quickly the author (no falling asleep here!) “catches himself in the act,” as it were. No sooner has he admitted this than he wants to make sure the reader hears him clear his throat of any possible religious virus: “I am not religious, and I regard the adoption of religious faith as incompatible with openness to truth. What I have done is point out that certain possibilities exist, and that whether they are actualized or not is something we cannot know.”
From my point of view as a theologian, I am not sure what else a philosopher can say past this point, for in fact Magee has brought his reflections to the very threshold of faith. But having placed himself there while refusing to step over it, he is forced into a lot of hemming and hawing. For the first time in this five hundred page book the reader finds Magee adopting a writing style riddled with hesitation. He reads here almost like Penelope with her shawl, with each sentence unravelling the one that went before:
I certainly do not advocate belief in the truth of those propositions, given that we have inadequate grounds for any such belief. But nevertheless the possibility that they are true cannot be ruled out. And far from being the case that they have been derived from religion, it is my belief that, historically, things have been the other way about, and the religious doctrines have been arrived at as a result of the possible truth of these propositions. It is because they could be true, and because human beings have exceedingly powerful reasons for wanting to believe that they are, yet the propositions themselves cannot be adequately supported by rational argument, that they have become articles of religious faith.
Exactly! How unfortunate it is that Magee seems never to have read the apologetics of Monsignor Ronald Knox, who addressed precisely this issue in his book The Hidden Stream: “You may picture human thought as a piece of solid rock, but with a crevice here and there—the places, I mean, where we think and think and it just does not add up. And the Christian mysteries are like tufts of blossom which seem to grow in those particular crevices, there and nowhere else.” That is why for Knox there is, philosophically, already the mystery of personality before there is, theologically, the mystery of the Trinity and Incarnation; there is, philosophically, already the mystery of appearance and reality before we encounter the mystery of the Real Presence; there is already the mystery of the mind before we begin to detect, and then open ourselves to, the mystery of Spirit.
I do not wish to deny the author’s dilemma. Stepping over any threshold into an unknown world holds all kinds of terrors for the uninitiated, terrors that life–long dwellers of the “realm beyond” never advert to (children’s literature throughout the world provides numerous examples, such as C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). But holding back entails a heavy price as well. This struck me most vividly when I read the passage that probably comes closest to representing Magee’s manifesto to the world:
Not being religious myself, yet believing that most of reality is likely to be permanently unknowable to human beings, I see a compelling need for the demystification of the unknowable. It seems to me that most people tend either to believe that all reality is in principle knowable or to believe that there is a religious dimension to things. A third alternative—that we can know very little but have equally little ground for religious belief—receives scant consideration, and yet seems to me to be where the truth lies. Simple though it is, people have difficulty getting their minds round it. In practice I find that rationalistic humanists often think of me as someone with soft–centered crypto–religious longings while religious people tend to see me as making token acknowledgment of the transcendental while being actually still far too rationalistic. What this means is that each sees me as a fellow–traveller of the other—when in fact I occupy a third position which neither of them seems to see the possibility of, and which repudiates both. What I want very much to see are two mass migrations, one out of the shallows of rationalistic humanism to an appreciation of the mystery of things, and the other out of religious faith to a true appreciation of our ignorance.
Magee has carved out for himself a position almost unique to himself—which of course in no way implies it is wrong. But when he then goes on to hope for “mass migrations” to his position, one must wonder how well thought out his position really is. I for one would certainly welcome the sight of the smug secularists among us moving en masse out of the “shallows of rationalistic humanism.” But whenever has true faith not had a “true appreciation of our ignorance”? No doubt many pseudo–believers think they know more than they do, and they are usually the noisiest among us. But all the great saints and theologians felt otherwise. Si enim comprehendis, non est Deus, said St. Augustine (in Sermon 117): if you have grasped something, whatever it is that you have grasped, you can be sure that it is not God.
We thus must leave Bryan Magee at the threshold where he has brought his reflections. As he rightly says, perhaps the mystery is the one where the transcendent self interacts with the empirical world, and never is that more true than in the decision of each soul to accept God or not. But the author is clearly a man willing to pursue arguments wherever they lead—and in this culture of monumental and pervasive intellectual meretriciousness, that itself is an achievement, one that stands out as much as Socrates must have in a once–smug and finally defeated Athenian empire. And speaking of Socrates, Magee has written about his own life in such a way that we can imagine him serving as living proof of Socrates’ adage that the unexamined life is not worth living, for in his unobtrusive way he has established the corollary: look how worth living is the examined life!
The second–century church father St. Irenaeus says in his most famous aphorism that “the glory of God is man fully alive.” I have no idea whether the author will take the following remark as a compliment or not, but in this minor masterpiece he has given us, however inadvertently, “confessions” in the Augustinian sense. That is, he has laid bare for the reader a life that continues—in its abundant richness and humanity, in its unsparing honesty and search for the truth, in its instinctive, almost unerring sense for the genuine article over the pretentious simulacrum—to give glory to God.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches in the Religious Studies Department of Regis University in Denver, Colorado. His translation of Josef Pieper’s book The Concept of Sin has just appeared from St. Augustine’s Press.